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The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz

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Curious Listener's Guide
Loren Schoenberg
Grand Central Press
ISBN 0-399-52794-X

National Public Radio evokes a bounty of strong emotions in the United States. Some loathe the idea of publicly funded media while others champion NPR as the last bastion of sensational-free news and culture. One thing is clear: NPR has been a radio safe haven for jazz lovers. Unless you live in a major metropolitan market (and even that's no guarantee), chances are you'll find small potatoes searching the dial for great jazz—unless you hit an NPR signal.

Thus, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz receives an imprimatur of authenticity through association alone. Even the title suggests this is a different introductory book, not one for dummies but curious—and intelligent—readers. Tenor saxophonist and instructor Loren Schoenberg attacks the subject with economy and thoughtfulness, avoid the usual in-fighting and quagmires associated with jazz's narrative and meta-narrative. That's not to say it's not colored with his own biases, such as the section titled "Con-fusion." And he does slip into jargon on more than one occasion: "There is an intersection between composition and improvisation that depends on the soloist's ability to create within the construct designed by the composer/arranger." Does this help a curious listener comprehend jazz?

Still, Schoenberg's simplified history and deconstruction (his word) of jazz will carry a curious listener far. Even better are his chapters suggesting artists, tracks, and albums to launch from. Every era and a player of every stripe is represented. The explanatory notes are generally clearer than the history chapters (although a novice will trip once or twice here too). Sure, die-hard fans will think of some song, album, or player not listed, but given space requirements, Schoenberg can be forgiven. If anything, he should be commended for stretching out and finding a starting point for every curious listener out there. My only complaint: songs are listed separately, and it would help if the songs could be associated with an album or collection, just to push an excited reader off in the right direction. It's a small consideration for an otherwise modest—and handy—book.

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